Psalm 137: Imprecation
July 12, 2022
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
This is perhaps the most infamous of what are called the “imprecatory” psalms—that is, psalms that pray for God’s judgment, sometimes in brutal detail, against sinful people. Why is there this tone in the Psalms? Many answers have been given, including some suggestion (parallel with C.S. Lewis’ in his reflections on the Psalms) that the tone and style of these psalms indicated a spirituality that was perhaps not worthy of New Testament Christianity. Two preliminary, if brief, points need to be made.
First, the Psalms have what you might call a “therapeutic” function. That is, they are what a commentator called “psalmno-therapy.” They are designed to allow the disciple, in the security of his covenant relationship with God, to let God know how he really feels. Whether those feelings are legitimate, worthy, ideal, or not is often unclear in these situations—or at least not specified. For the point is not to give instruction about the right course of action, but to provide a vehicle for the innermost frustrations and difficulties to be expressed to God in intimacy and reality.
Second, the Psalms at times speak not as individuals asking for God’s judgment on their own personal enemies, but as the inspired Word of God, and writing at a time when there was a God-designed theocracy, they speak of God’s judgment. Similar sentiments are found in different context—where there is no theocracy on this earth—in the New Testament. Jesus speaks of hell more than any other New Testament figure, and the Book of Revelation describes God’s judgment in terms that are far more scary than Psalm 137.
To this psalm in particular, we can take note of two elements when we are faced with torturous (even terrorist) evil. First, there is mourning (137:1-6); second, there is remembering (137:7-9). The mourning serves the purpose of bringing into the open the reality. Too often, we varnish over the truth with pretend piety. But not this psalmist. The Babylonian captivity was terrible. Frightening. Awful. What made it worst was the “tormentors” goading them to sing one of their praise songs or hymns for their scornful “mirth.”
But then second, there is remembering. This serves the purpose of bringing to God those feelings. In my judgment, verse 9 is a statement of what someone who has seen his own children brutally murdered might well feel. It is not a statement of what a Christian—called by Jesus to love his enemies and pray for those who persecute him—should himself do, let alone wish. “It is mine to judge, I will repay,” says the Lord. At least the psalmist brings these desires to God. He does not take the law of God into his own hands. He tells God frankly what he wishes would happen and, in a sense, leaves it with God.
The truth is that all sin must find its resolution in only one of two places: either at the cross or in hell. At the cross, the judgment we all deserve is taken by Christ for us. In hell, the infinite wrath of God against sinners is eternally wrought. It is a terrifying thought, and at the back of the violence and emotion of verse 9 stands a somber truth that any person, any Christian, needs to give more than occasional thought to. That is, the reality of hell. God will judge all sinners who do not come to him to lay their sins at the foot of the cross.
Repent of your sins, turn to him, and cry out to him for forgiveness. And if you are wrestling with pain about some horrible sin that has been committed against you, then take that also to God and leave it with him. In the intimacy of your relationship with God, express your real feelings, and let him, as it were, through his death for you on the cross, draw the sting of the evil that has been done to you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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